Coming off a historic 11-win season in 2018, Mike Leach carries a 49-40 record into his eighth year as Washington State’s coach. Leach and Tracy Claeys signed contract extensions that should keep the head coach and second-year defensive coordinator around for the foreseeable future.
Gardner Minshew and his mustache have left for greener pastures in the NFL, but the Cougars return an impressive stable of receivers, led by outside threats Dezmon Patmon, Easop Winston Jr. and Tay Martin. Renard Bell, Jamire Calvin and Spokane’s Rodrick Fisher add to a deep unit of pass-catchers. Sophomore running back Max Borghi should get as many touches he can handle, but he won’t have to do all after the Cougars signed East Mississippi CC and former Notre Dame running back Deon McIntosh. Replacing Andre Dillard is a tall task, but the offensive line returns four of five starters, headlined by third-year center Fred Mauigoa and Freshman All-American right tackle Abe Lucas.
The defense is in position to make steady improvement once again, after leading the conference with 38 sacks in 2018. Defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo, defensive tackle Will Rodgers III and rush linebacker Willie Taylor III spearhead a pass rush that’s known to trick opponents with its pre-snap stunts, twists and stems. Jahad Woods becomes the leader of a linebacker room that’ll be without Peyton Pelluer for the first time in six years. Next to Woods, there isn’t a bona fide stud in the group, but Justus Rogers, Dillon Sherman and Dominick Silvels all have sufficient experience. It’s more of a mixed bag in the secondary, where the Cougars bring back cornerback Marcus Strong and nickel Skyler Thomas while ushering in three junior college defensive backs: safeties Daniel Isom and Bryce Beekman and cornerback Derrick Langford.
How to play
WSU may have a cupboard stocked with elite playmakers, but in the Air Raid offense, no one is more important than the player distributing the ball. Coaches maintain Anthony Gordon was not too far behind Minshew when both were competing for the job last fall, and the redshirt senior appears to have beaten out heralded grad transfer Gage Gubrud of Eastern Washington, though he could have a short leash if things turn sour. Gordon’s protection is pivotal, too. The offensive line kept Minshew clean last season, allowing only 13 sacks, and the Cougars generally avoided negative plays en route to scoring a Pac-12-leading 37.5 ppg. If Liam Ryan’s transition to left tackle goes smoothly – and it has through camp – WSU may not miss a beat up front.
Nose tackles Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei and Lamonte McDougle have been entrenched in a position battle since the start of spring camp, and the competitive nature of that race speaks to the improved depth of the defensive line as a whole. Silvels’ move from Rush linebacker to Will linebacker is an intriguing move, but perhaps not as intriguing as the one that brought Fa’avae Fa’avae from the inside to the outside. Claeys and his staff are also moving Thomas from free safety to nickel, a change that brings the redshirt junior closer to the line of scrimmage and allows him to blitz the quarterback – “one of his hidden knacks,” Leach said earlier in the month. The last line of defense is often the most important, especially in the pass-heavy Pac-12 Conference, and the Cougars have a few question marks there. Jalen Thompson’s departure shouldn’t be understated, but the new defensive backs will have a quarter of the season under their belt before WSU begins playing games of real consequence.
How to win
What the Cougars accomplished last season shouldn’t be de-emphasized, but they were also fortunate to play three of their four strongest opponents at Martin Stadium. In 2019, the script is flipped, and WSU will have to visit No. 11 Oregon, No. 13 Washington, No. 14 Utah and an Arizona State team that also received preseason Top 25 votes. So, if the Cougars expect to contend for a division title, they’ll probably need to pull off one or two upset wins on the road, and they won’t be able to absorb a single loss at home, against UCLA, No. 24 Stanford, Colorado or Oregon State. Another interesting wrinkle in the schedule is the stretch between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9. During that stretch, the Cougars have four road games, two bye weeks and just one game on the Palouse.
Gordon should be able to pick up confidence during the nonconference schedule, which pits the Cougars against three atrocious defensive teams – New Mexico State, Northern Colorado and Houston – and WSU’s first Pac-12 opponent, UCLA, shouldn’t pose much of a defensive challenge, either. But the Utes will be prepared to smack them in the mouth in week five, and Gordon’s composure will be tested in a hostile road environment.
Borghi is the most irreplaceable player on offense – if not the entire team – and the Cougars will have to be careful not to wear him out early, knowing how crucial he’ll be toward the end of the season and especially in the Nov. 29 Apple Cup.
If the defensive line can relieve pressure on the secondary by getting to the quarterback, the Cougars won’t have to worry about their untested defensive backs giving up big plays. But that could be more problematic against opponents like Stanford and Oregon, which boast strong offensive lines, elite quarterbacks and talented wide receivers.
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